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Rivers of Power - Laurence Smith ****

I've never been entirely convinced that geography is really a science, but if there was a book that was likely to do so, it's Rivers of Power. What's more, Laurence Smith manages to bring alive the importance of rivers to the Earth, but more particularly to humanity, with some excellent storytelling.

The book starts with a nilometer, an ancient structure for measuring the height of the Nile - and the role the Nile has played in Egyptian culture. From here we open out to a whole host of rivers around the world. Rather than focus chapter by chapter on particular locales, Smith leaps from place to place, covering the roles of rivers in, say, wars or trade or climate change. In doing so, he manages to communicate his enthusiasm and a feeling of engagement that makes the book both approachable and enjoyable. There's always something new and different turning up - no one, surely, would expect, for example, a chapter to begin with a discussion of the superhero movie Black Panther, using the fictional nation of Wakanda as a lead into a section on Ethiopia.

I was concerned that there wouldn't be much science in the book, but in practice there is a fair amount, both in the description of the geological mechanisms and in the scientific approach used in the investigations of rivers in the associated stories. I do think the blurb goes too far in saying 'our quest for mastery [of rivers] has spurred staggering advances in engineering, science and law' - I take the point about engineering and to some extent law, but I can't think of a single fundamental scientific discovery that is related to our quest for mastery of rivers.

Because rivers are so personal, I was slightly disappointed there wasn't much mention of the UK, but this is a book that's very much about the world view. So we see a lot from the big rivers of the world and rather less from the smaller, more intimate rivers that have still had big parts to play in local lives. Even so, the book rarely disappoints.

I can't say this book has totally converted me to the cause of geography - but as a one-off, it's certainly a recommended read.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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